It Is Time to Prune

— Written By Peg Godwin and last updated by
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A proper pruning job can boost the health and longevity of trees and shrubs as well as make them look more appealing. Many trees and shrubs benefit from late winter pruning to improve their shape, size and structure.

Flowering trees and shrubs are frequently pruned to encourage flowering. Determine the timing of the flowering cycle of the plants to know the best time to prune. Shrubs that produce flowers in the summer including beautyberry, roses, gardenia, peegee hydrangeas, Buddleia, chaste-tree, crapemyrtle, hibiscus, Hypericum,  ligustrum, hollies, nandina, photinia and waxmyrtle  should be pruned in late winter (February – March).

February is the time to cut back ornamental grasses before spring growth begins. Pampas grass, northern sea oats, Japanese blood grass, miscanthus and pennesitum species are good candidates for the cutting. Liriope and mondo grass will also benefit from cutting old growth before spring growth begins.

Good pruning includes knowledge of the plant material being cut and proper pruning techniques. There are three basic pruning techniques for shrubs:  Heading back is used to control the size of the bush when individual branches are shortened. Shearing is used to clip foundation shrubs such as hollies and boxwoods. Thinning means removing an entire branch back to the main trunk or ground. It is used to allow sun to penetrate inside a thick canopy.

The faster and larger a shrub grows, the more you can cut it back. Plants that respond to severe pruning are: Chinese and Japanese Holly cultivars, Photinia, Ligustrum, Osmanthus, Elaeagnus, Waxmyrtle, Rose of Sharon and Spiraea.

Experts with NC State Extension have prepared a series of guides to help you prune ornamental trees and shrubs. They are all available online:

Before the Cut discusses why trees and shrubs should be pruned:

Tools to Make the Cut will help you select the right tool for the job:

General Pruning Techniques illustrates the correct way to prune trees and shrubs and shares tips for pruning trees, deciduous shrubs, evergreens and conifers:

How to Prune Specific Plants is a guide to pruning 75 common landscape trees, shrubs, and vines: